I was talking the other day with Aven Rennie, my good friend, about how much I was looking forward to seeing her in a few short weeks at Women At Woodstock. Aven and I go back 30+ years. We met in New York as freshly minted law school graduates, still in search of our first law jobs. At Aven’s brilliant suggestion back then, we several times donned what we referred to as our NYU Law Student Costumes (as I recall, straight-legged blue jeans, tucked-in cotton shirts, penny loafers with no socks, and soft silk cravats tied in floppy bows – ultimate preppie gear), and sauntered brazenly into the NYU Law School placement offices together to search their bulletin boards for job postings (um, neither of us were graduates of NYU), after which we would retire to the nearest bar or coffee house, feeling a bit like petty thieves, and share words of encouragement, quite a few laughs, and inevitably a few pastries or beers… Thank you, Aven, for your cheek and your sense of humor, and for seeing me through that exhilarating and terrifying job-hunting adventure!
I asked Aven what she remembered most about my croning party several years ago. She is an “original crone,” having come the farthest of anyone in the group to my 50th birthday celebration, driving from Buffalo, NY to Southern Ohio in order to attend. Being Aven, she took my question very seriously, and sat down and wrote me a long email after our call, in which she described a riveting discussion we all had one night about why it was a miracle that each one of us was still alive (not dead due to some unfortunate happenstance or, more commonly, stupid youthful decision). One of the stories was particularly riveting, and tied in bizarrely with a tragic event of international proportions. I hadn’t thought of that story in years. This is what Aven wrote:
I was intriqued when you invited me to Women at Woodstock. I wondered if it would be a mega croning, except with strangers and professional help.
I remember well your milestone birthday, when you invited a dozen friends to assemble for a weekend in the woods. You had explained that you were becoming a crone — not an old crone (that would be redundant). You were determined to enter the next phase of your life deliberately. You wanted to celebrate. You offered your friends the chance to design a rite of passage for you into greater maturity.
I remember you planned a bunch of activities to set the mood and provide the setting. The woods included a two-story cabin with heat and AC, full baths, a kitchen, and a large hot tub, and miles of walking trails, so the well-scrubbed dozen didn’t hesitate too long before accepting your invitation. A long weekend away from family and work responsibilities would add a prison-break feel to the gathering. We brought our favorite music and food, gave little thought to the bathing suits and clothes we threw into our suitcases, and came armed with ideas for the croning ceremony.
Have you noticed that friends of your friends are usually friend-worthy? You fall in with them easily? There’s a quick sense of sisterhood? So it was at the croning. I didn’t know anyone but you, Ann, but I quickly felt that I was amid soulmates.
I remember you asked us to think in advance about answers to a few questions:
If we could call a do-over at any moment in our lives, what moment would that have been?
What advice had anyone ever given us that we followed to our benefit, or ignored to our detriment?
What did our mothers and grandmothers say that we found ourselves saying?
What was our personal completion of this sentence: “I shouldn’t be alive today – It’s a miracle that I survived [fill in the blank].”
We sat at a large table after dinner and gave our answers. No one had to participate, but most did. All were allowed to listen. Many truths emerged. We nodded, shook our heads, ooohed, clucked and harrumphed in turn. For me, the near-death discussion was riveting. There were tales of narrowly missed car and plane crashes, barely avoided falls, serious illnesses, stalking episodes, a prank involving a guy hiding under a bed in a dorm after seeing The Exorcist, hoping to scare the doody out of a girl he liked, being spotted when she checked under the bed as she was about to get into it and her heart nearly stopped.
One of women at the table, Jeannie, told us that she had gone as a teenager with a group of young people and chaperones to a Carribbean Island one Easter break to do good work. A building project was involved, probably school or church-related. The local people were pleased to provide food and housing not far from the worksite. The girls threw themselves into the work. A local handyman helped with the project, and the Americans found him to be friendly and helpful. On Thursday, April 4 1968, Jeannie worked late at the site. When others got ready to head off before she did, the handyman offered to stay and drive her back when she was ready to go. Later, the two got into his car and he drove off to the main road. The radio played loud Island music. After a short distance, the car passed what Jeannie thought was the road back. Was she mistaken? It was dark. Maybe there was another route back? She sat quietly. He passed another turn and then another turn that would have taken them in what she sensed was the right direction.
She had to speak up. “Why didn’t you take that turn?”
He did not make eye contact. “No worries,” he said, “I make another stop before I take you back.”
She sat back again and tried to quell her growing fear. A few minutes later, she no longer recognized the area. The buildings and homes were thinning out. The lighting was poor. She looked at him pointedly. He knew she was worried and wanted an explanation. He gripped the wheel, looked straignt ahead and accelerated.
Suddenly, he turned down a dirt road. There were no streetlights. The car bumped past a few shacks and then there seemed to be nothing but darkness. He drove on. She tried not to panic. What were her options? Did she have any? Should she throw the car door open and roll out? Shout out the car window for help? Look in the backseat for anything to grab to hit him with? She thought fleetingly of her parents, at home in Ohio, unaware that their daughter was about to be raped, or killed – or both.
We croners were on the edge of our seats.
Suddenly, she said, there was a news bulletin. Martin Luther King, Jr. was dead. The handyman cried out. He slowed the car to a stop and listened. King had been shot dead at 6:01 PM at a hotel in Memphis, Tennessee by an unknown gunman. There were few details, but King’s death was confirmed. The handyman began to sob in disbelief and shock. Suddenly, he seemed to want to be somewhere else. He swung the car around and headed to the lighted road. She sat still. He drove her back to where she was staying, braked, and said nothing as she leapt from the car without looking back. She was safe.
We all thought about the narrowly-avoided calamities that had allowed us to be alive and together at Ann’s croning. We thought about how King’s assassination had bizarrely led to one good outcome. Life was good. It IS good. I don’t remember much about the nighttime woodland ceremony that capped the croning. There were sheets, headdresses, a makeshift throne, laughter and wine, and many embarrassing photographs.
I left the croning determined to be deliberate about my own passage into greater maturity. I don’t know if I’ve succeeded. I’m trusting I’ll have a better idea after Women at Woodstock.